Air Force envisioning swarms of tiny, inexpensive, almost disposable drones

Unmanned aircraft would flock together to protect assets, gather information

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Credit: Reuters

The Air Force is pondering what it would take to develop a small, low-cost unmanned aircraft that it could fly in swarms to handle a number of applications such as protecting a given area or quickly gathering intelligence.

The idea is in the planning stages as the Air Force only issued a Request For Information this week for what it calls Affordable, Attritable Aircraft concepts.

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From the Air Force: “The thought is to develop an inexpensive, configurable and producible on demand air vehicle. A number of military applications can be envisioned for an air vehicle with such a capability. One potential application is to use hundreds or thousands of such units in a campaign to overwhelm an enemy’s air defenses and “punch a hole” to enable higher value, less replaceable [aircraft] to engage or monitor enemy systems. Another potential application is to augment the capabilities of high-valueIntelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, systems which may be limited in a specific campaign by distances, quantities, or threats.

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For all applications, the weapon system is expected to be an air vehicle that would return to base or to a separate location to be recovered. However, because of the mission and because of the low cost, the air vehicle would be attritable, meaning the Air Force would expect and could afford to lose many of the assets.”

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The Air Force said in envisions at least two key challenges to developing such a drone: Design and development of an air vehicle capable of significant range and/or endurance while keeping the vehicle at modest size in order to assure affordability. Second is design for commoditization where production costs would be such that small quantities (tens of units) could be procured intermittently, on demand for the same unit cost as hundreds or thousands of units without requiring commitment to a traditional, continuous production run.

In its RFI, the Air Force asks a number of questions to potential future aircraft developers, including:

  • Are there existing aircraft that can be easily and affordably modified to execute one or more of the [Anti-Access/Area Denial] A2AD missions? Briefly describe the concept and discuss the timeline and associated challenge of getting such a vehicle to fly in 12-18 months.
  • What vehicle concepts are possible if a clean sheet approach is used to meet an A2AD need? Would it be possible to demonstrate such an aircraft in 18-24 months?
  • Can the vehicle be designed and manufactured for the $3M or less cost range? Are there unique aspects of the vehicle concept that would enable a specific mission? If so, what are they and what mission does it enable?
  • What is the anticipated weight and volume of the system?
  • What methods are available to trade system reliability for cost and system reliability for safety? If there are none, what research would you propose to enable these trades?
  • How much can quality be dialed back yet still enable an acceptable mission capable rate?
  • How can traditional aerospace fabrication methods be tailored to this new design and maintenance environment?
  • How can this concept take advantage of open architecture, not just for software, but for hardware (wings, fuselage, engines, avionics, munitions, ISR pods, etc.) to enable unique configurations as required for each individual aircraft?
  • Describe potential missions that could be conducted differently, or enabled entirely, by the envisioned air vehicle along with the specific capabilities of the air vehicle for these missions.
  • Given a specific mission definition, provide estimates of system speed, range and payload type.

The Air Force has at least one tiny drone it is now testing. CyPhy Works is providing the Air Force with a petite drone called the Extreme Access Pocket Flyer. The Air Force awarded the company a contract to develop the drone to bolster search and rescue operations. The Extreme Access Pocket Flyer will address an existing capability gap in the remote inspection of small passageways and tunnels that are often – blocked by debris and rubble.

In related news the Office of Naval Research recently demonstrated how swarms of small, unmanned boats can be used to swarm around a threat or protect a larger boat.

The Navy technology—called CARACaS (Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing)— can be put into a transportable kit and installed on almost any boat. It lets boats operate autonomously, without a Sailor physically needing to be at the controls—including operating in sync with other unmanned vessels; choosing their own routes; swarming to interdict enemy vessels; and escorting/protecting naval assets, the Navy said.

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